When Should A Marriage Count?


Lots of people like to tell me that my marriage “didn’t count.” I’m not entirely sure why, as I have the marriage license (and subsequent divorce filings) to prove it did, in fact, happen. I changed my last name with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Motor Vehicles. I filed my taxes jointly. My ex-husband and I were legally together for almost two years. I don’t think Drew Barrymore and Tom Green lasted that long. Did their marriage “count”? What are the criteria for a “real” marriage?

I suppose that when you marry someone you met two months prior while consumed by a psychotic episode in a ceremony officiated by some sketchy minister, people are bound to question the validity of your love. However, in my book, that doesn’t make the vivid daydream-turned-nightmare any less real. Just because I got better doesn’t mean my heart didn’t break in the process. I remember studying his haggard face, seeing how his once-piercing blue eyes had turned a dull shade of gray. He’d changed, I’d changed, we had both moved on. While I went home to South Carolina to the care of my loving parents, he had to fend for himself on the streets of LA, cycling in and out of boarding care, rehab, and dozens of hospitals. I saw the system fail him in a very real way.

So were we just playing house? I mean, it felt real. The drugs and alcohol were real. The sex was real. The delusions and hallucinations were real. But so was the love. When does someone get to have a legit marriage? Is it when both partners are deemed “sane” and live in a house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a labradoodle? Who gets to decide?

Here’s my take: I meant those vows when I made them and I meant it when I said goodbye. When I told him that I was going out for a sandwich and headed straight for the airport, I felt that my life was in real danger. But it also felt like my heart was smashed into a million pieces. I cried myself to sleep that night — and for many nights after. In fact, my eyes are welling up as I write this. You see, something that most people don’t understand is that shared psychosis is a real thing and you don’t know you’re in Never-Never Land until you wake up from the nightmare.

I go by Brooke Bresnan Hilton because that is currently my legal name. I never bothered to change it back after the divorce. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Part of me gets a kick out of using the name to make reservations at fancy restaurants, and most of me doesn’t feel like Brooke Bresnan anymore. But I don’t necessarily think I’m a Hilton, either. Perhaps I’m somewhere in between. I know I was profoundly changed by my psychotic episode, a time I will forever remember as the most defining period of my life. I feel so distant from the person I once was.

So now I ask: what do we actually know about anyone else’s reality? Who are we to judge the validity of anyone else’s experience? We all want to be loved, valued, and heard. We all have rights, and we all have a voice. My name is Brooke B. Hilton, and my marriage was 100% real.